Universities UK said a controversial case study setting out the guidance was being withdrawn while it reviews its stance, but insisted that the legal position remains "unclear" on whether the voluntary separation of men and women could be allowed at events such as lectures on Islam by visiting speakers.

However, the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that, while the law allows segregation by gender in premises being used for religious purposes, it was "not permissible" in an academic meeting or in a lecture open to the public.

'Pandering extremism'

UUK, which represents higher education institutions across the country, has requested help from the EHRC in establishing clarity about the legal position, after the guidance it published last monthsparked protests from students and outrage from some politicians.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said: "We should not pander to extremism. Speakers who insist on segregating audiences should not be indulged by educators.